Monday, November 2, 2009

LGBT Persons and the Bible (Pt.2): Malakos

In this second post, we will move on to another controversial and misunderstood Greek word that appears in the New Testament letters: malakos.  I intend to show that this word probably means "effeminate" – as the Biblical translations from the 16th century to the beginning of the 20th century actually agreed upon. It is interesting, however, that just like the shift in translation preference with arsenokoites in the mid-20th century, malakos gets retranslated as male prostitute (occasionally), sodomite, and often collapsed with arsenokoites to denote "homosexual perversion" (but hopefully we all see this as a serious mistake after our previous analysis of arsenokoites). Although some reputable scholars still argue that malakos should be translated as "male prostitute”, I remain unconvinced.  Dale Martin has persuaded me that the word "effeminate" as a translation of malakos was right all along. Unfortunately, the mid-20th century translator's shift in sexual ideology provided them with a basis to usually retranslate the word as "homosexual perversion.” An abundance of ancient sources that used malakos (in contrast to the lack of sources for arsenokoites) make the meaning of this word perfectly clear.

As a word used in the context of moral condemnation, malakos always refers to the entire ancient complex of the devaluation of the feminine.  Martin's insight is helpful here:

"For the ancients, or at least for the men who produced almost all our ancient literature…women are weak, fearful, vulnerable, tender. They stay indoors and protect their soft skin and nature: their flesh is moister, more flaccid, and more porous than male flesh, which is why their bodies retain all that excess fluid that must be expelled every month. The female is quintessentially penetrable; their pores are looser than men's. One might even say that in the ancient male ideology women exist to be penetrated. It is their purpose...their 'softness' or 'porousness' is nature's way of inscribing on and within their bodies this reason for their existence. And so it was that a man who allowed himself to be penetrated - by either a man or a woman - could be labeled a malakos. But to say that malakos meant a man who was penetrated is simply wrong...a perfectly good word existed [for that]: kinaedos. Malakos, rather, referred to this entire complex of femininity...in fact, malakos more often referred to men who prettied themselves up to further their heterosexual exploits. In Greco-Roman culture, it seems generally to have been assumed that both men and women would be attracted to a pretty boy."

These kinds of connotations for malakos are seen throughout ancient literature, and more than anything it simply reveals the horrible misogyny of the day.  It also reveals that this word was never meant to mean either "male prostitute" or "homosexual perversion.” Counter-intuitively for us today, a similar use of malakos came from Greek male homosexuals who used the word as an insult against male heterosexuals because they thought that penetrating a woman was absurdly feminine (sex with women, these gay Greek men contended, taints one with femininity - i.e., malakos).

So malakos is a sexist word from ancient times used in various ways to devalue the (stereotypically) feminine.  It seems clear that neither Paul in 1 Corinthians nor the author of 1 Timothy are referencing either homosexuality or male prostitution.  As such, how should we judge the mid-20th century biblical translators who wrongly translated malakos as having to do with homosexuality? Even contemporary scholars have disliked the idea of effeminacy as a moral category, while having no problem with homosexuality as one.  As Martin sarcastically comments,

"Today effeminacy may be perceived as a quaint or distasteful personal mannerism, but the prissy church musician or stereotyped interior designer is not, merely on the basis of a limp wrist, to be considered fuel for hell. For most English-speaking Christians in the 20th century, effeminacy may be unattractive, but it is not a sin. Their Bibles could not be allowed to condemn so vociferously something that was a mere embarrassment. So the obvious translation of malakos as 'effeminate' was jettisoned."

Clearly, we must critique an aspect of Paul's teaching here. For all of his genius in other areas and egalitarian ideals, this understanding of malakos makes Paul complicit in ancient sexism to some degree. As Martin comments,

"People who retain Paul's condemnation of effeminacy as ethical grounding for a condemnation of contemporary gay sex must face the fact that they thereby participate in the hatred of women inherent in the ancient use of the term."

Did Paul "hate" women? No. But he was certainly influenced by the negative Greco-Roman view of women in his use of malakos, even if he was indeed also advocating very progressive ideas in regards to women in church leadership.  Unfortunately, he was just not entirely consistent in his views.  However, is it realistic to expect an already radical apostle to be completely thorough and consistent on this deeply engrained cultural issue and prejudice? Not in my opinion.  Consider post-segregation 20th century America. Racism, the original sin of America, was so deeply rooted that even those who were for racial equality still struggled to shed their past prejudices. The power of the past is indeed strong, and structural sins like racism and sexism have deep roots.  All members of a society are unavoidably affected by such structural sins - including Paul, apparently.

Today, we must learn to read the Bible critically, becoming aware of our own and the biblical author's culturally relative biases.  We must also commit ourselves to read with St. Augustine's hermeneutic of love:

"Whoever, therefore, thinks that [s]he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all."

This will create tensions with in the text for us at times.  Not all parts can be harmonized as a perfect whole.  Sometimes we will find ourselves needing to critique the text on the very basis of biblical, Christ-like, kenotic-prophetic love.  And when it comes to the sexist term malakos, Paul must be criticized on the basis of his own principles of justice, love, and equality.

I conclude with a relevant quote from Samir Selmanovic in his book It's Really All About God:

"As in a relationship with a person we love, our relationship with the text would also involve disagreement and conflict and, at times, apparent disobedience to the text. To contradict and disobey specific texts on the basis of the entire relationship with the entire text can be a way to honor our texts."